Gibbons on helium: natural opera stars

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Gibbons  on helium: natural opera stars

Yes, someone actually tested this! Gibbons use the same techniques as professional opera singers to make their trilling call, scientists found in a study providing evidence for unusual physiological similarities between apes and humans

By (Reuters)

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Published: Fri 31 Aug 2012, 9:07 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:34 AM

Gibbons are jungle divas. The small apes use the same technique to project their songs through the forests of southeast Asia as top sopranos singing at the New York Metropolitan Opera or La Scala in Milan.

That was the conclusion of research by 
Japanese scientists who tested the effect of 
helium gas on gibbon calls to see how their singing changed when their voices sounded abnormally high-pitched.

Just like professional singers, the experiment found the animals were able to amplify the higher sounds by adjusting the shape of their vocal tract, including the mouth and tongue.

It is a skill only mastered by a few humans, 
yet gibbons are able to do it with minimal effort, according to Takeshi Nishimura from the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University.

Singing is particularly important to gibbons, which use loud calls and songs to communicate across the dense jungle. Their exchanges, described by primatologists as ‘duets’, can carry as far as two kilometres. “Our data indicate that acoustic and physiological mechanisms used in gibbon singing are analogous to human soprano singing, a professional operatic technique,” Nishimura and colleagues wrote in a study in 
the American Journal of Physical Anthropology last week.

Professional sopranos’ ability to fine-tune their vocal tract resonances allows them to maintain their volume when they hit the high notes.

The fact that gibbons can do the same thing suggests the complexity of human speech may not have needed specific modifications in our vocal anatomy.

Making gibbons sing on helium may sound eccentric but Nishimura said it was a logical way to test how the animals controlled vocalisation when the resonance frequencies in the vocal tract were shifted upwards.

Helium causes its distinctive effect because sound travels much faster through the gas than it does through air.

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